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Fighting for LGBT+ rights in a Kenyan refugee camp

Violence has escalated against LGBT+ people in a refugee camp in Kenya, following the staging of a protest (earlier this month) asking for better protection. A member of the group talked anonymously to Lush Times writer Katie Dancey-Downs about what happened

Early on 11 December, a group of LGBT+ people gather to stage a protest in front of the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Their messages and requests are splashed in English and French across banners, one reading, “We request for a quicker resettlement process before we all die in this hostile environment”, another reads, “LGBT+ are people like you.” On their faces, they wear rainbow flag masks, with the words “free to be me” printed across them.

The protest is led by grassroots organisation Refugee Flag Kakuma (RFK), which has been working hard from within the camp to empower and rehabilitate minorities, particularly those identifying as LGBT+. The group has been asking for better protection from UNHCR, a United Nations programme which has a mandate to protect refugees, and which operates in this camp.

After the protest, an anonymous member of the group explains what happened next: “At 2pm, the police trucks and patrol vans surrounded us and called on both the host community and the heterosexual refugee inmates to come and hit us with stones and sticks, explaining to them that we are LGBT+ refugees.

“Some of my fellow LGBT+ community members picked up the stones and threw them back, in an action of self defence. The conflict lasted for two hours in the presence of the police. The number of attackers increased and outnumbered my community. We could not contain the situation.”

The group attempted to seek safety in the UNHCR office, and claims that when they were eventually allowed in, they were beaten further by the police. UNHCR has not yet responded to this claim.

A UNHCR representative says: “Some members of the LGBT+ community in Kakuma decided to stage a demonstration about discrimination they had experienced from other refugees and Kenyans in the local community.

“This demonstration took place outside of UNHCR’s office in Kakuma and was broken up by police when it began to get out of hand. During the protest, some LGBT+ members were injured; they were given a safe haven and medical assistance and allowed into the UNHCR compound.

“On the basis of concerns about their safety, a decision was subsequently taken by UNHCR to move them out of Kakuma to a safe location.”

Explaining the need to stage a protest, RFK says it is receiving severe homophobic attacks from both the Turkana host community and fellow inhabitants at the camp. The anonymous representative also claims people have suffered police detention without trials, and that above all, their Human Rights are being violated because the UNHCR officers in charge of the protection unit are not listening to their concerns.

“We have a vision of an environment which is receptive to and accommodative of all human beings, regardless of their gender identity or sexuality,” the group says.

When asked to respond to the claim that UNCHR is not giving LGBT+ people in the camp enough protection, a UNHCR representative says: “Protection is provided by the State. That’s the first port of call for protection in Kenya. We, as UNHCR, provide asylum seekers and refugees with documentation that allows them to stay in Kenya - that is the protection that is given.

“These particular individuals, because of their sexual orientation, have faced discrimination from other refugees and members of the local community. The security provided in those spaces is provided by National Services.”

The representative says UNHCR is doing a lot of advocacy work around the issue, but that there are limits to what it can do to make sure every member of the LGBT+ community feels adequately protected. Being unable to guarantee the safety of the LGBT+ refugees was the rationale for the post-protest decision to move them elsewhere.

The Kakuma camp, established in 1992, has a population of over 147,000, and is home to people from at least 19 nationalities. LGBT+ people facing persecution in neighbouring countries like Uganda flee to Kenya where homosexuality is still illegal, but where the punishments are less severe than in Uganda which passed a Bill in 2013 with long sentences for homosexual sex, and punishments for those considered to be ‘promoting’ homosexuality.

Those who have faced violence in Kakuma are now being relocated to Nairobi. Those waiting to move had been staying in the reception centre at the camp, which it was hoped was a safer place for them. While they waited, they say they had no food, no spare clothes, bedding, or privacy.

RFK has covered the escalating situation on its Facebook page, posting videos and photos of the violence. The Executive Director, Mbazira Moses, appears on a video with one eye badly swollen, claiming that the police have taken his phone. A few days later, he sends a photo of his worsened eye condition, and says he has been told he may have to undergo minor surgery.

The anonymous RFK spokesperson says: “I appeal to the public across the World to support me and advocate for fundamental LGBT+ human rights and freedoms, and to help me and my organisation support economic empowerment and self reliance amongst marginalised minorities.”

An online petition has now been started, calling for an end to homophobic attacks in the camp, asking that UNHCR authorities guarantee the safety of LGBT+ refugees.

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